Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The 3 D's.

I am about to use a word I've never used before.


There, I've typed it.

I don't use words like narrative because they have become the domain of candy-assed jargon slingers. But I'm using it today because I am so incensed about the up-coming Presidential election in America and what I believe are the lessons that we in marketing could learn.

President Obama--silver-tongued President Obama--has had almost four years in office and he's failed, utterly and miserably failed to articulate a narrative about what he's done, what he's going to do and where the country is going.

As the eastern portion of America slowly recovers from a storm of Biblical proportions, it would be easy to creative a narrative about the important and necessary role of government in our lives.

But an American brand story is missing.
A story about noble aims.
A story about opportunity.
A story about fairness and equality despite inculcated unfairness and inequality.

All of this is missing in our election discourse.
No story-line has emerged.

There are about five or ten brands in America that have a story-line.
That have a creation myth that people believe in and admire.
The rest throw out websites, commercials, tweets and horseshit randomly and willy-nilly.

Take a company like Verizon.
They spend nearly $2 billion a year on marketing.
And each expenditure only reaffirms how hated they are.
They have no core.
No ethos.
No founding story.
All they have is $49.99 deals.

Brands, Presidential or not, need to do three things.
I call it the 3 D's:

1. They need to define who they are.
2. They need to demonstrate what they do.
3. They need to disseminate their story so it becomes word of mouth.

Of course there's a fourth D.

It's called dicking around.

That's what most of us will wind up doing.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The calm after the storm.

Most people when they think of Manhattan don't think of it as a place that had at any time a natural topography. We think of Manhattan as flat, or better, as flattened, as paved over and even as a pool table. That's not true, of course, nature is more powerful even than New York realtors and there are still rises and dips throughout the island.

The highest point in Manhattan is Hudson Heights, located in Bennett park not far from Pinehurst Avenue and 183rd Street. It's 265 feet above sea level and it's from that modest aerie that George Washington built a camp from which he was routed by British red coats and Hessian mercenaries.

My section of Manhattan is significantly lower than that perch. We sit about 50 feet above the waters of the East River, though last night we were about 10 or 15 feet closer to the sea.

The storm at least in New York City has subsided though it will be days, some say, or even weeks before electricity is restored to the lower half of the island and for the life of me I can't conceive how the city will ever restore subway service. Most stations, the underground ones, I mean, were inundated and are literally under feet of water. Who knows what's happened to those subway denizens, rats, who have thus far survived every threat to their existence.

Tonight Whiskey and I walked to the river just to see what we could see. The water was flat and glassy, the lights on half of Roosevelt Island--the high-priced condo half were lit and things looked normal. The other half, the asylum and hospital part was still dark. There weren't even flashing lights from emergency vehicles. Even the lighthouse which stands at the northernmost tip of the island is dark. The water, however, has subsided. The sea wall once again holds back the sea.

Tomorrow people will begin making their way to work.

We will reconnect with friends and trade war stories.

Slowly, slowly and damply, life will return to normal.

A lesson from my butcher.

Diagonally across the street from my apartment house sits a butcher's shop, Ottomanelli's, that has occupied their corner since 1900. It's a throwback of a shop. A place where the owners actually work behind the counter and they greet you by name.

My neighborhood is very far east and unlike so many areas of Manhattan, it's not dotted by retail stores and restaurants. In fact, the butcher shares its block only with a nail salon and a dry cleaner.

Over the years as people's tastes and habits have changed the butcher has changed to keep pace. They still sell meat in great bloody hunks, but now they also sell prepared foods, sandwiches and they do a lively breakfast business with freshly baked muffins ($1.25) and coffee. At 7 in the morning it seems that every doorman and porter in a ten-block radius is there getting their morning Joe.

Ottomanelli Brothers - Since 1900
After a lifetime in the city one thing I've learned is this. If firefighters stop at a place to buy their meals or food supplies, the place is legit. On Saturday's there's often a hook and ladder in front of Otto's.

Yesterday as the storm bore down on New York I stopped in Ottomanelli's around 11. I bought a loaf of bread, a caesar salad, two orders of their famous "steakhouse" chili and eight of their really superior "Coney Island" frankfurters. At that hour they were all out of bread and had just a few quarts of milk left.

Otto's closed at three yesterday. The butchers who work there live on Long Island and needed to get out before the bridges and tunnels were closed for the storm.

This morning, however, Ottos was open once again, serving the neighborhood, its green neon signs a beacon saying "all is ok."

It occurred to me that we in the advertising industry could learn a bit from Ottomanelli's. The importance of being there. The importance of personal service. The importance of being important to their clients.

Woody Allen once famously said "80% of life is showing up." I think most agencies and agency people ignore that wisdom.

They aren't there and working for their clients. When the roof needs repair they talk about plumbing.

11 years ago when the city was attacked on 9/11, Ottomanelli's stayed open. They were there for their clients and their neighborhood.

Recently a newer, better store opened not far from Otto's. My wife is ready to switch our business to this new place.

I can't do it.

I know who will be there when I need them.

The storm.

Last night amid the latest storm of the century, was no time for a long, meandering walk through the city. The winds were fierce, others who were out would fall into the wind and the wind would keep them standing. The rain was steady and strong. And everywhere there were large fallen branches and yellow police tape warning people away. In fact, East 82nd Street, the home of several old London Plane trees which, I guess, are fragile due to their age, was taped off completely. There was to be no traffic, pedestrian or vehicular on that street.

Nevertheless, Whiskey's needs and my curiosity took me outside at precisely the hour of high tide. I wanted to see the storm at its worst. I wanted to see "special effects" not in a movie, but in real life.

Whiskey and I walked due east down 83rd Street to the park that runs alongside and over the river. The wind delayed our progress and swept back Whiskey's long ears. She looked at me as if to say "what's happening. I don't like this." But we kept moving ahead anyway. I worried as we walked under the trees that line our street and had to choose which was more dangerous, walking under trees or walking under a construction scaffold. I worried about being impaled by a branch or sliced in half by a corrugated sheet of aluminum.

We finally made it to the promenade above the East River. The river itself was running fast and out to sea. It ran like water through a flood gate. There were no whitecaps. The water was moving too fast for them.

Halfway across the wide water--which was wider now than ever--the Roosevelt Island sea wall, which, depending on tides sits between four and eight feet above the waterline, was breached. The water was lapping against low-lying buildings and the few cars on the island were now sitting in sea water.

Further south, the northbound lane of the FDR was under several feet of water. The path alongside the drive, the domain of so many runners and bikers on a normal day, was covered in inky water. The water flowed westward down 79th Street, flooding some of the old tenements there, at least the basement apartments that house so many.

Whiskey and I turned tail and walked back to our home. We were soaked through, but otherwise none the worse for wear.

Unlike so many in New York, we were safe and dry.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Storm warnings.

This season's "storm of the Century" is bearing down on New York City and though as of this writing we've had nothing but a light rain and wind gusts merely in the high 30s, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has already stopped subways and buses from running and one half of one level of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is closed as is the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

Apparently the worse is yet to come and the impending deluge and windstorm will be accompanied by a huge storm surge made more severe by the full moon.

Fortunately, though I live just one short block from the East River, I am 50 feet above the water and even those predicting the worst, have not designated my neighborhood an evacuation zone. Centuries ago, before Manhattan was graded and grided, there was a long sloping hill where I now live that rolled down to the side of the water. Archibald Gracie farmed most of the land and his farmhouse, just five blocks away from my condo is still standing. It was built in 1799 with commanding views of the churn of Hell's Gate and since Robert Moses suggested it to Fiorello LaGuardia, it's been the residence of the Mayor of New York since 1942.

Whiskey, my seven-month-old golden retriever and I were up early this morning and walked over to the promenade that runs alongside the river. The wind was ripping and there were whitecaps in the water. The tops of waves were being blown off by the wind--a sure sign of a storm to come.

The northern point of Roosevelt Island is marked a stone lighthouse built by the city in 1872. At that time the island was called Blackwell's Island. The name was then changed to Welfare Island owing to the island housing a "lunatic asylum," a jail, an almshouse and a city hospital for the indigent.

The lighthouse, over 50 feet tall and built from a sturdy grey Manhattan gneiss, was standing strong and with the river running out was being buffeted by the water. Its light was burning bright.

Whiskey wasn't bothered by either the wind or the rain. She enjoyed the wind and chased fallen branches around like the retriever she is, grabbing branches and shaking them vigorously as if she had caught a rabbit or a squirrel.

The rain came in sheets.

The wind blew hard.

Whiskey chased leaves.

The storm was coming.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A journey back to 1964.

I spent two weeks in Chicago over the last 48-hours, emptying my mother's apartment of her accumulation of 60 or 70 years of junk.

It's funny how little intrinsic value the things we spend a lifetime acquiring have when we are dead. The paintings on the walls, virtually worthless. The little glass figurines similarly add up to almost nothing. And the furniture which was so precious (don't let the kids on that!) is appraised at Craig's List prices. $175 for a leather sofa.

While my wife meandered through the nearly empty space, I wandered from room to room looking at the books my parents had bought but hadn't gotten around to reading. Mostly big fat histories with their dust covers and bindings virgin.

I found a book that interested me, "The Medium is the Message," in an early edition, hardcover. Inside was a handful of employee appraisals that my father had filled out for people who had worked for him. They were dated June, 1964.

The highest paid of the creatives in the bunch was getting a $1500 raise from $10,500 to an even $12,000. The lowest was a studio artist who had been working at my old man's agency since just after World War II ended having joined in July, 1945. He was getting a $1000 raise. From $5200 to $6200. He'd be making $120/week.

I read these reviews my father had hurriedly written in his down-slanting script in pencil. They were well written and full of praise and requests for big (percentage-wise) increases. Most of them spoke of men who were working 70-80 hours a week.

I thought of my father writing them while on the train to White Plains, my father fighting for their raises. I thought of the young men, thrilled at getting an extra $20 or $30 a week.

They're all gone now, or at least I suspect they are, after all, if my old man were alive today he'd be 84, and that's plenty old enough.

I put the appraisals in my bag, sheathed once again in the book they'd been hiding in. I figured they might make an interesting blog entry someday.

It didn't seem right to just toss them away. And anyway I couldn't do it.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Uncle Slappy and Benny the Bum.

Uncle Slappy called.

Before I even returned his "Boychick," he was running at full throttle into a story. It was late and I was tired and I didn't have the moxie needed to slow him down.

"You remember Saul Himowitz, yeah. The guy who raised birds in his spare room, married to Tillie for 44 years then left her for the girl at the Shop-Rite?"

I grunted a "yes."

"Well Saul, as you may or may not remember was best friends with Benny the Bum Bernstein. They shared a common interest in all things avian. That is Benny raced pigeons, kept his coop in his backyard in Queens."

"OK," I mumbled, making a motion with my hand, hoping Uncle Slappy would hurry things along.

"Benny the Bum was heading out of town for the weekend and needed someone to watch his dog, Little Benny the Bum. The dog was old and nasty and no kennel would take the mutt."

"Benny the Bum and his dog had the same name?"

"Don't interrupt. That's a really long story.

"So Saul agrees to house sit and dog sit Benny the Bum's dog and he takes the Flushing line and walks from the station to Benny the Bum's house. Saul doesn't drive, never has, never will.

"Everything is going along fine for a day until Saul wakes up Sunday morning and Little Benny the Bum doesn't. The dog is dead. It had to be 200 years old in dog years already.

"Saul calls the vet whose number Benny the Bum had left and the vet wants $200 to pick up Little Bennny the Bum and dispose of the remains. Well Saul tosses nickels around like manhole covers and no way he can spend $200 on a mongrel like Little Benny the Bum, so he puts the dog in a brief case, one of those expandable cases you can carry a laptop computer in.

"Then Saul walks to the 7-train to go to the vet's office because disposing of Little Benny the Bum costs just $100 if you deliver the dog to the vet.

"Saul has the dog in this black brief case and rests it on the floor of the 7 train. Unfortunately as the doors open at 111th Street, three schvartzas run onto the train, see Saul's bag and thinking it's a computer ripe for the taking grab it and get off the train just as the doors shut."

"Never to be seen again, I presume."

"That's right, Einstein. Saul's lost a dead Little Benny the Bum and three black guys are running through Queens looking for a fence to get some money for a dead dog they think is a computer."

"What happened then, Uncle Slappy?"

"I don't have time for this," the old man snapped. "I gotta go."

Org. Charts.

Yesterday, replete with emoticons :-) I got an email forwarding to me my client's marketing "org charts." It was suggested I file these away for my reference.

I opened the attached powerpoint and expected to see three pages or maybe four. What I got were 25 pages (I'm not exaggerating) of everyone in their marketing organization and how they are connected to everyone else, all the way up to the cock of the walk, the CMO.

25 pages of org charts.

These charts arrived as if by magic on the eve of having to show three levels of clients a handful of rough cuts. Assuming that viewing goes well, we have another level of rough cuts showing on Monday and another one on Thursday.

We talk about gridlock in Washington. We bemoan the bureaucracy in institutions like the military and entities like the Department of Motor Vehicles.

But we replicate these bureaucracies in our own businesses.

Even our internal reviews are as onerous as a caravan across the Sahara or, better, the Bataan Death March.

I suppose what's happened is this. As manufacturing and agriculture jobs have disappeared, more and more people have found work in "management" and "administration."

That's fine. For the most part those are good-paying jobs.

But unfortunately, they are "make work." Really, can someone tell me what they do all day besides attend meetings and prepare for meetings. What do they do and think and make that makes a difference to the success of the organization.

It doesn't take 30 people to approve advertising. Or to write a presentation. Or critique a brochure no consumer will actually ever read.

It takes one.

But as a society we have embraced gridlock.

It keeps us busy.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Barack Obama and Rosser Reeves.

I am seldom startled by the stupidity of people who are charged with marketing a product, service or idea. In fact for about two decades now I've been repeating this line: "We keep idiot-proofing our work, they keep making better idiots."

A little more than a month ago at the Democratic convention someone uttered a line that I thought could win Barack Obama the election. It pointed out the difference between he and Romney. It was catchy. And it raised the spectre of a return to the Bush-caused depression we are currently mired in.

That line was: "Don't double-down on trickle-down."

Since that line was uttered thousands of gallons of ink and billions of pixels have been expended covering our Presidential race.

The Obama campaign seems to be going out of its way to be un-memorable in its speeches and ads.

I grew up in an advertising era in which the thinking of Rosser Reeves still held sway. He believed in a unique selling proposition. A memorable line. And repetition.

Most of the taglines we remember today come from this era.

I think because they worked.

Baseball and marketing.

Years ago, when I was in the full and strapping bloom of youth, I was a mediocre baseball player on a skein of mediocre baseball teams. There's nothing like being mediocre at something you love to inspire you to work harder. Or to find something else you love that you're actually good at. Or both.

In any event, me and my team-mates would often find ourselves down by seven runs with but one inning left to play. The coach, at that point, would invariably tell us as we approached the plate for our "last licks," to not worry about winning the game with one swing. Instead, we should just try to put the bat on the ball, get on base and slowly from there get hit after hit and that way try to claw our way back into the game.

I think that counts as a sound strategy.

Today, however, our "coaches," that is the ideologues, strategists, administrators and technocrats that run advertising agencies, approach such dilemmas with a different, less realistic sort of strategy.

They say the equivalent of, "you hit a double. You, a triple. You, a double." And so on.

In other words, they look at the variables of life and marketing as if all the lights will turn green on demand.

Unfortunately, best case scenarios seldom happen.

You seldom, if ever, go viral.

If you work on a toilet paper account, people will rarely start a conversation about your brand. No matter the cleverness of your "hash tag."

What seems to be missing, as it's missing in my double-triple-double baseball strategy above is a heaping teaspoon of reality.

That is reality based marketing.

Marketing that doesn't magically rely on the ephemeral promise of "earned" media.

Marketing takes work. And costs money.

It should not include fairy tales and fantasy.

To that end, my friends at Sell! Sell! had this Venn Diagram on their blog yesterday.  I don't generally steal things from other blogs, but this was way too good to pass over.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On Wall St.

I'm downtown this morning. On Wall  Street. Lending my "gravitas" to a new business pitch. I don't mind really, though I'm incredibly busy between work and other work and even more work. Work is a force, I believe, that gives us meaning. Besides, I have gravitas to spare and don't mind lending it out--especially if through a loan I get back with interest.

I worked for a major retail bank at 48 Wall Street for five years, and I'm comfortable down here with the swindlers, the sharpies, the rogues and the rascals. Among those sorts there are decent people too.

I walked by the great Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street. It was old man J.P.'s thumbing his nose to the world that in an area of New York with massive skyscrapers and the most expensive real estate in America, he built his headquarters just two-stories high. Yeah, that kind of rich.

You can still see holes in the granite edifice where a terrorist's bomb exploded in 1920. 38 people were killed and 143 injured. Italian anarchists, Galleanists were blamed for the blast, though no one was ever arrested. The bomb itself was comprised of 100 pounds of dynamite encased in 500 pounds of cast-iron for shrapnel effect.

As I said, I spent five years working on a client down here, producing for those five years roughly two ads a week, 50 weeks a year. Not all of the ads were great. Some, probably, sucked out loud, but many were good. And at an early stage in my career I got used to concepting, presenting, selling, writing and producing quickly.

There's also the wonderful reward of opening up the world's greatest newspaper, "The New York Times" and seeing your ad. I will never get tired of that feeling.

Today, rather than doing good work quickly and running it, we create ornate castles in the sky. It takes us 24 weeks to create a banner ad that needs to go through eight layers of approval. Run it. If no one likes it, pull it. And run something else.

I like that methodology.

I much prefer working in "hot type."

No real point now.

Just some memories.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Two things.

I am a restless sort.

I don't like staying very long in any particular agency.

In fact, as I near my 28th anniversary in the business, I've hung my full-time hat at ten different agencies in three different cities and I've freelanced at probably a dozen more agencies. I've yet to make the five year mark at any agency, though I've come close twice.

In all those agencies, through all those years, in all those cities on all those coasts, I've realized that the advertising industry is a very small place.

I read some years ago that if you took all the agency people in the US, they would not fill the University of Michigan football stadium.

That's why each time you change agencies, you run into a half a dozen or more people you already know, or who know you, or who've heard of you, or you have friends or ex-partners in common.

The advertising industry is a very small place.

This leads me to my point.

When all the bullshit is done for the day, when the power-point's high as an elephant's eye, when the time sheets are sheeted, and the conference rooms are empty, there are two things that matter to you if you're looking to last in this industry.

1. The work you do. Your portfolio. The brands you've built. The clients who have succeeded on your labor. The accounts you've helped win.

2. The reputation you've made for yourself. Your decentness. Your willingness to help people. Your insistence not on puffery and pomp, but on being a worker among workers. On being someone others can count on.

There's a lot of crapola that surrounds our industry. A lot of posturing and posing. A lot of bluster, bombast and blather.

It's easy to get swept along in ass-kissery. Awards-mania. Desk-jockeying and org chart origami.

If you want to last in the business, you'd do well to avoid those things.

And focus on these two.

1. Your work.
2. Your reputation.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A message to someone I don't like and never will.

Over the years, I've worked with hundreds of people: clients, account people, executives, creatives, planners, administrative staff, etc.

With most of those people, I've been able to establish a good working relationship. They find things in me that they like and respect, and I do the same with them.

I suppose that's how I am "Linked In" to well over 1,000 people.

That said, along the way I've worked with more than a handful of pissant pricks. Usually my way of dealing with them is to ignore them, to find a way to minimize their presence, to in general, "send them to Coventry."*

Usually these people "done me wrong." They ignored my direction. They spoke bad about me behind my back. Or they figured out some other way to schtup me.

I have in the palm of my virtual hand a short list of everyone who's ever wronged me in this business.

If you have the foggiest notion that you are on this short list, you probably are. So don't ask me for freelance work, to "get you in" someplace, or anything else.

An elephant never forgets.

Neither does George.

*To send someone to Coventry is a British idiom meaning to ostracize someone, usually by not talking to them. 

I can get it for you retail.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A walk with a friend.

Yesterday night a gentle rain fell in New York. It started around two in the morning and even at that time, within minutes the trash bins on nearly every corner were quickly dotted with blown-out umbrellas, their spines sticking into the night like the ribs of dinosaur.

The people out, the people walking while Whiskey and I split the night, were crunched and huddled against the damp. They plodded along like Willy Loman on downers, chins buried in their chests, hands deep in their pockets like a wayward priest, their hats pulled down over their faces like a little-known 1940s noir film.

Whiskey and I approached the night with more optimism. The rain bothers neither of us and I felt fairly scotch-guarded with my mackinac zipped high and my cap pulled low. Whiskey, whose coat is thick and imbued with a natural lanolin, seemed not to notice the moisture at all. She trotted ahead looking for mischief, listening for my conversation with her, or on her ever-present search for a discarded apple-core or soggy pizza crust.

Tonight, unlike most nights when I walk with no direction, I was meeting a friend down around 53rd Street. He also couldn't sleep. We had seen, via the magic of IM that we were both awake in the wee hours and agreed to have a walk.

The friend was my oldest. We had gone to high school together and because we were both born late in the year, were the two youngest in our class--13 when our peers were 14. This was just one of many things that brought us together--I'd say like brothers, but we are closer than my brother and I ever were.

Fred and I went our separate ways to college, but reunited in grad school, he was Columbia Law, I was Columbia Arts and Letters. While attending the Ivied halls we had each found the woman we would marry and the four of us would often share Chinese food and laugh and talk at least until the effects of the MSG lightened to a simmer.

Through the 40 years we have know each other we have most often been on the other end of the phone  when a loving ear was needed. Through job losses, through trouble with the children (as I have two girls, Fred has two boys) through issues with parents' deaths and more.

I walked south with Whiskey on the path downtown. The promenade along the river narrows in the 70s, for there, 100 years ago Con Edison built a giant steam plant on 74th Street and the FDR drive that powers and warms many of the older buildings in New York.

New York's steam operations were started back in 1877 by a man from Lockport, New York called Birdsill Holly, yes, Birdsill Holly, who had 50 patents to his name for the production and metering of steam. Steam still today provides energy to over 100,000 customers via its annual production of 13.64 megatons of steam--it's not unusual in Manhattan, especially during the cold, to see huge cones of steam billowing from beneath the asphalt and up through sewer grates. It looks, at times, like the city will soon explode. There are, of course, occasional eruptions, even deadly ones, but still New York keeps the lid on its steam, a warm hissing, even comforting presence in so many homes.

Whiskey and I walked passed the hospitals of "Bed Pan Alley" that run nearly a 1/2 mile along the river from the low 70s to the low 60s. We walked through the opulence of the river townhouses that once butted against the east side Irish slums of New York--the Irish slums that were built alongside the abattoirs that once filled the site of what is now the UN Headquarters.

I bumped into Fred around Tudor City in the low 40s. I was two miles from home. The rain was steadier now.

"Georgie," he said shaking my hand. (We don't hug. We are not men who do so.) "Georgie, I have cancer."

"Shit, Fred."

"I'm not going to die. But I'll be in treatment the rest of my life."

"Fred, if there's anything I can do. If you need blood."

"No, I'm ok. Celia," Fred's wife, "Is ok, too."

"George, you'd be surprised how some people just don't get it. They don't know how to act. They act like schmucks. People at work."

"Fred," I repeated, "anything you want. I am here. Always. I'm a universal donor. And Laura," my wife "knows every specialist in New York."

"I'm ok, Georgie. I'm ok. I just had to tell you."

We leaned on the wrought iron and patted Whiskey. We did a lot of spitting into the up-flowing water. After a few minutes in unison we pushed ourselves away from the ancient railing.

"Work in the morning," Fred said.

We said goodnight, shook hands again.

And walked through the rain our separate ways to our homes.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Raised by wolves. And more.

Like so many of my generation, born during the Kodachrome days of the Eisenhower administration, I was raised by wolves.

My father, my drunken father was 99 44/100s absent. Away on business or chasing a skirt or drunk with his pals or working late. 

My mother was up on bennies or down on demoral and pill-popping only exacerbated what would decades later be called her "borderline personality."

Neither of my parents were raised by parents. They just somehow grew older. Learned English though it wasn't spoken at home and moved up up up and out of the depression poverty and want they were born into.

My father's father died when my father was twelve. He was said to be the only tailor in Philadelphia who couldn't sew.

And my mother's father was, in the parlance of the day, a "no-goodnik," an itinerant carver of gravestones who never worked steadily at anything but betting on the ponies.

I was raised by wolves like these.

Yesterday, Rich Siegel, the er uproariously funny Rich Siegel of "Round Seventeen" acclaim, wrote a post about his mentor in the business, David Butler. How Butler helped him get started, how Butler helped him on his way. You can read it here:

It occurred to me reading Rich's post that I was raised by wolves, until I entered advertising.

In the world of advertising I found people willing to help if you showed you had smarts, spunk and ambition.

I had a boss who hired me in my first job at Bloomingdale's, Chris Rockmore. I got paid to write. He taught me to be ruthless with my own copy.

I met a legend named Shep Kurnit who introduced me to four or five of his corner office friends, one of whom, Marshall Karp, eventually hired me.

Marshall's brother, Harold, was my first ACD. He went through my copy like the Germans through Poland.

Ed Butler at Ally had a different approach. He looked at my copy and said, 'you're good. I trust you. You don't have to show me copy unless you need help.'

I had Chris Wall and Steve Hayden at Ogilvy who taught me more about being a grown-up than a thousand real-life fathers would have.

Of course there are wolves in advertising as well.

And sharks.

And weasels.

And all kinds of vultures, buzzards and jackals.

But there are other sorts, too.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


In America right now we are embroiled in election season. Last night was a presidential debate which settled little but asserted, once again, how divided our government and our country are. In fact for more than a dozen years now--certainly since the government was "shut down" for political reasons--we have often heard the word "gridlock" used to describe our fractured, dysfunctional politics.

We hear phrases like, "nothing gets done." "Things are stuck in committee." "There's too much red tape." They're all used to describe the inertia that afflicts our country.

This morning it occurred to me that we in advertising--that is on the fringes of real business--are suffering from the same ossification as Washington.

Our work is gridlocked.

Our work is meetinged to death.

Our work goes through--no joke--twenty or thirty rounds of review before emerging "from committee."

That's right.

The gridlock we bemoan in Washington, we replicate in our own world.

In both spheres, Washington and Madison Avenue, we are without strong leaders.

No one speaks out about how costly and inefficient we have become.

No one says, 'it needn't be this way.'

We are no longer dreamers.

We have become our own nightmare.

Dialogue from Hell.

ACCOUNT: We need to get the copy over to the client first thing tomorrow morning.
CREATIVE: There are a lot of changes. I think it won't be first thing in the morning.
ACCOUNT: Then by 10. We need to get the copy over to the client by 10.
CREATIVE: There are a lot of changes. I'm at an edit. It's not going to be done by 10.
ACCOUNT: Then by 12-ish. We need to get the copy over by 12-ish.
CREATIVE: It's gonna be ish after 12 at the earliest.
ACCOUNT: Ish after 12?
CREATIVE: There are a lot of changes, it's going to take me some time.
ACCOUNT: OK. Ish after 12. But we really really really need this copy.
CREATIVE: You'll have it around 12.
ACCOUNT: OK, thank you thank you thank you.


ACCOUNT: We need to get the copy over to the client first thing this morning.

As Vonnegut wrote, "and so it goes."

Finding answers.

Yesterday I had the all-too-rare privilege of spending a couple hours with an film editor and a music supervisor as we looked for scratch music for some commercials I am helping to create. I don't know how many thousands of commercials these two have put together, but I'm sure the number is stratospheric.

They would find a music track and lay it down roughly against a rough cut and see if it had the right feel.

In kibbitzing around they came up with an evaluation continuum.

On one end--the bad end--was "what were you thinking?" The opposite end was "awesome!"

They would listen to a track and say one or the other.

After about ten minutes of this "meme," they said, something that stuck with me.

"You get about 100 "what were you thinkings" for every "awesome."

And that's what so many project managers, creative directors, account people, clients and agencies forget.

Creation is experimentation.

It's looking at myriad options.

It's playing with dumb ideas until you find something smart.

It's playing with the obvious until you land on the unusual.

It's a thousand mistakes until you find something correct.

There are no shortcuts.

There are no expressways.

There's only "keep trying."

That's the way to make work that works.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Uncle Slappy hurls a one-liner.

Uncle Slappy returned from the shiva of Adele Zuckerman on the 15th floor. He was loaded with a shiva sampler, a piece of marble cake, two chocolate chip cookies and a schtickle of crumb cake on a small plastic plate. He was also armed with a one-liner.

A shiva, for those uninitiated, is not a somber affair, though it is tinged with sadness. It's best to remember the dead as living and usually funny anecdotes and fond memories are related. It's a cathartic week and all-together a good way to say goodbye to a loved one.

Slappy sat down in his favorite chair and began to dig into the goods. And here it came.

"It turns out Adele didn't die a natural death," he began.

At the age of 54, I have learned well my role as a straight man.

"No? What did she die of?"

"She died from drinking furniture polish," Slappy said.

He paused for precisely one beat.

"She had a horrible death. But a lovely finish."

Monday, October 15, 2012

The 7 Habits of Highly Unsuccessful Agencies.

A meme, there I said it--meme, has been spreading its invidious way through my Facebook feed. It reads, "The 7 Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives." I didn't have the stomach to read such banality, but the title alone did make me think about the habits of unsuccessful agencies.

Over the years I've worked full-time at a dozen agencies and freelance at a dozen more. Here are some of the habits I've seen and experienced.

1. Make people feel like they are interchangeable parts. They themselves don't matter. Someone else, in fact, plenty of other people are waiting for their job. You're just lucky, in this day and age, to have a job.

This assures your people that they weren't hired for their talent, skill, taste or presence. They're hired not for any value-add, but to be a body in an allocation plan.

2. Give people no feedback on the job they're doing.  Don't talk to them regularly and thank them for the work they're doing. Review them, formally, once a year. And then, postpone giving them that review for at least six weeks to make them feel small and insignificant.

3. In meetings where work is reviewed, constantly refer to work done ten years earlier. There's no better way to make people feel like they can never measure up than to give them something impossible to measure up to.

4. Make your expense system as complicated as possible. Nothing helps morale more than people who have to lay out money to the agency (the holding company, the stockholders) because the reimbursement system was designed by Torquemada. Keep rejecting receipts for $9. Eventually your employee will give up and that money will go straight to the bottom line.

5. Give some people good computers and others shitty computers. This is a great way to remind people daily how small and insignificant they are.

6. Adopt a nasty tone in memos from key executives. Who doesn't look forward to that monthly note from the CFO reminding them to do their timesheets. It's best to make this writing as shrill and Kafkaesque as possible.

7. Keep the workplace disheveled. The filthier the work space, the tinier the bathrooms, the paucity of the amenities, the better to make people feel like crap.

A great line of copy.

When I was a kid, America was a whiter place than it is today. The county I grew up in, Westchester, though it abutted the Bronx, was doing its best to distance itself from New York City and the urban woes that seemed to all but have destroyed the city. This was the era of municipal bankruptcy, of 2,000 murders per annum (that's about six per day if you're counting) when people had real and desperate fear of going out at night, of being mugged.

I grew up about nine miles from the city line. But I went to a school that was more than 90%
white--a school quite distant from the problems of the day.

In those days in New York and a handful of other states, the drinking age was 18. Which meant that most of us started going to bars and buying beer at around the age of 15 or 16. Even though I had my brother's draft card as I.D., it was still more than a little nerve-wracking to go into a liquor store and by beer, wine or something harder. You had to muster up some courage because it would be embarrassing to be turned away.

In any event, my best-friend then as now was called Fred and he was one of the few black kids around. Fred didn't grow up like the rest of us with fathers in big jobs in the city. Fred's dad (also Fred) was a New York City cop. As such, Fred grew up more streetwise than the rest of us combined.

One night we needed beer so we could get drunk. We urged Fred to go into the liquor store to buy for all of us. We ponied up our money and pushed Fred out of my 1964 Mercury Park Lane.

It seemed like he was gone an hour, but then we saw Fred walking out of the store with a case or two of Schlitz or Carling's Black Label. Fred was laughing.

He threw the case in the trunk and joined us in the car.

"The guy asked me for I.D.," Fred said.

"I said to him, 'no one asked for no I.D. in Vietnam.'"

That sealed it.

We now all knew how to buy booze.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Late night New York.

The weather has turned cold in New York, seasonably cold, the way it used to be in October when I was a kid growing up. Today, it seems, we don't have four seasons anymore, or really cold weather where the ice floats down from Albany and stops up the Hudson and the East Rivers.

Just last week it was in the 80s in New York, that seems more the norm for Autumn in our age, but today was a throwback and woke cold and never went above the 40s.

Along the river there are still people walking. It's not so cold that they stay away, and there are still runners plying the macadam. But with the cold, the Puerto Ricans seem to be gone, hibernating perhaps until more tropical temperatures return.

I noticed tonight instead of Puerto Ricans a number of tall, heavily-coated men and women speaking Russian to each other and into cell phones. The promenade along the river is not far from the UN and maybe these Russians are from there, because to date I have not noticed them in my neighborhood. To that end, there are no Russian restaurants or tea houses. The nearest Russian Orthodox Church, an onion-domed affair very lonely among Manhattan's svelter spires is all the way over on 97th between Madison and Fifth.

But these Russians were swaddled in black great coats  and warm astrakhan hats as unseasonable as the twits still insisting that with the mercury in the 40s, shorts and tees and flipflops were de rigueur. They walked in groups of two, separated from other groups of two, their hands stuffed deep inside their coat pockets, arms interlocked as if together they could stand-up better against the wind that wasn't there. The wind wasn't there but they walked as if they walked into it anyway, hunched over and purposeful, top buttons sealed shut like a bank safe.

My dog and I headed uptown, my dog Whiskey, just six months old, enjoying her first cold weather. She bounced amid the leaves and looked for mischief. After moments of bounding, Whiskey grew tired, and settled in to a proper mannerly walk, sticking close to my left side like a show dog.

We walked to the tall ship's mast of a flagpole which juts out over the FDR 20 feet below and the river five feet further than that. I leaned on the wrought iron and looked at the water as Whiskey panted.

A single Russian came over and leaned and stared with me. We had a moment of eye contact, then looked away, then the old Russian spoke in English heavily accented. "Nevsky Prospect deceives at all hours of the day, but the worst time of all is at night... when the devil himself is abroad, kindling the street-lamps with one purpose only: to show everything in a false light."

"Gogol," I asked?

"Yes," he answered. "Who else? The walk here, the city uptown here reminds me of the Nevsky Prospect. The light is not a true light. It's a false light."

I let my silence ask what he meant.

"False because nothing is as it seems. The rich, and there are so many," he motioned to the granite apartment houses that line the avenue along the drive. "The rich are poor. And the poor..."

I expected him to say that the poor are rich. But he didn't.

"The poor, are poorer."

"Yes," I agreed. "And you?" I asked, trying to bring the conversation back from the ontological.

"I am poorest," he answered. And twice he spit into the filthy water, then left me listening to the silence of the night and for the devil of the dark.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Index cards.

When I was a young copywriter at Ally & Gargano over 20 years ago, the guy who ran the mailroom was a bit of a legend. His name was Kiki Fernandez and I think he had been with the agency since it opened in the early 60s.

In any event, I've always loved office supplies and often at night, when most everyone else had left the agency I would head back to the mailroom and attend to my myriad stationery needs. When I did so, nine times out of 10, Kiki was there and I would ask him questions about days of yore in the agency business.

One time I asked Kiki about a writer who had worked at Ally whose work I had always admired. Kiki told me that this particular writer had tried for years to get into Ally and had succeeded only after many tries. He told me that the people in the agency in charge of creative recruiting--the people, therefore, pressed with keeping the agency great, kept an index card on every creative they met. If there were no immediate positions open, they flagged the creatives they liked for later.

Creating an "index card," of people you like seemed to me to be a very good idea. We don't really do index cards these days, but the form doesn't matter, the function does. And this is a practice I've always tried to follow. To remember people who I judge as good, different or outstanding.

It's good to have these people nearby when an opportunity arises.

Like this morning, for instance, when I'm slated to talk to an animator whose work I first saw seven years ago.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Typing Tourettes.

Every once in a while I lose my natural optimism and my o'erweening love of mankind. There are moments, in fact, when my darker side emerges, when my deeply suppressed anger seeps out.

For instance, just now I had this idea that just after I start my next job, I reveal that I have typing Tourettes. In other words, I type fuck you like fuck you this fuck you fuck you fuck you I'm sorry fuck you, I can't fuck you help fuck you it fuck you.


What follows may be a bit inchoate. It's a thought I've been having for a few days now. A thought I've been unable to shake.

Maybe the thought came to me over the weekend when I was attending an event in "The New Yorker Festival," a tribute to one of my favorite writers, Joseph Mitchell. Author Ian Frazier, actor Bob Balaban and daughter Nora Mitchell Sanborn read some of Mitchell's words--Sanborn, in fact, read nothing more than a list Mitchell had compiled.

Nonetheless, the writing was breathtaking.

Here are three examples, the first two from Mitchell's "The Bottom of the Harbor," the last from "My Ears Are Bent."

"The first drunk woman I ever saw was an old sister they took off the Block Island steamer. She was white-haired, and she was so saturated she didn't know Jack from jump rope. Somebody's mother. It was a revelation to me."

"The bulk of the water in New York Harbor is oily, dirty and germy. Men on the mud suckers, the big harbor dredges, like to say you could bottle it and sell it for poison."

"They got used to going to Coney Island when they were kids and never got out of the habit. Old men in stiff straw hats sit on camp stools and read their newspapers...The sand is covered with wriggling flesh. The sand is carpeted with brown, red, pink and white flesh. Males with paunches as big as beer kegs are stretched out flat on their backs...Here are tall, lithe tanned females...and here are females with figures like roll-top desks."

The great Keith Byrne has a typically insightful post today on his blog "Flotsam." In it there are a couple of sentences that might have prompted this post.

"I sometimes wonder if in our desire to keep things "clean" and "minimal" and "figuring out the details later," we're leaving the best, most magical parts out. We're telling "stories" without characters or plot or color. And too often leaving the magic on the cutting room floor."

What, I think, Keith is writing about is this: that there is a world of difference between being simple and being simplistic.

Mitchell's writing above is simple. There are no complicated clauses or large words. The imagery is real.

But Mitchell's writing is anything but simplistic. It is evocative, true and moving. It seems to me there are entire stories in single sentences.

Lately I've been thinking about Milton Glaser's iconic 1966 illustration of Bob Dylan. A simple silhouette with some colorful squiggly lines. Yet it captures the soul of the man and the spirit of the era.

Simple. Yes.

Simplistic. Crap.

Adele Zuckerman, 1912-2012.

Adele Zuckerman, who had lived in my Upper East Side apartment house on the 16th floor since 1966 when she was 54, died earlier this week. She was 100 years old.

Adele was a congregant of my Uncle Slappy's shul. Slappy, as you may know, was for 52 years, the Rabbi of a small congregation called Beth Youiz Miwo Mannow. Through the seasons (such as they are in the era of global warming) Adele and Slappy became friends. And now she is gone.

Adele is gone, but Uncle Slappy is here, having flown up on the 7AM flight from Boca to attend the Shiva--a week long ritual in which Jews mourn their dead and eat sponge cake. Slappy came for both purposes.

Slappy, for all his idiosyncrasies, biases, quirks and more, is a wise man. He reads widely. Not books of the 50 shades of grey ilk, but things of thought, depth and introspection. Sometimes his wisdom is hard to catch amid the barbs, antics and banter. And sometimes his wisdom is buried inside those barbs, antics and banter.

This morning when I opened the door the let in Uncle Slappy he was in the process of taking a handkerchief out of his pocket. As he did so, a coin fell from his pocket to the floor. Slappy, all 86 years of him, bent to the ground to pick it up. His movement was as quick as a Dominican short stop.

"You're looking good, Uncle Slappy," I said. "Not so old that you're not still bending down to pick up a penny."

"It was a dime," the old one corrected. "I suppose I should leave it there. Don't sow in the corners of your fields, after all."

I had never heard the line before: don't sow in the corners of your fields.

Leave something for the poor. Leave something for others. Leave something behind.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I was down at The South Street Seaport Museum on Sunday and it was a trip worth taking. From faded brick with the outlines of missing staircases, with decades of wall-paper or paint peelings, they have constructed an evocative history of a New York that is no more. Also, and I think this is good, it's a small museum, with only a few exhibits. You can take the whole thing in in 45 minutes, walk to Chinatown for some dumplings and ruminate about all those who came before.

Maybe my favorite part of the museum is the display I've pasted above. These are the tools left behind over the years of the men who built the wooden ships that ruled the waves until they were replaced by steel-hulled constructions.

What strikes me is how many types of tools were used years ago.

What strikes me is how few tools we expect people in our business to possess.

We have people who do digital. People who do site work. People who are story-tellers. We have people who are car guys. People who do beauty. People who do humor. People who do tech. People who do flash.

We have tiny tool kits today.

I'm not sure why.

If I were to advise someone seeking to break into our business or someone seeking to stay employed, I would show them the picture above.

It would be up to them to see the point.

Hemingway does powerpoint.

I got in early this morning to look at some decks that people I don't particularly care for have prepared.

One deck was 77 pages.

The other was 64.

The deck I prepared for the same meeting was one page.

For some months I have been trying to come up with a post titled "Hemingway Does Powerpoint." In it, I would show the simplicity of good, sharp, attentive writing. Contrasting with the jargon-laden crap we swill and sell.

Somehow we have learned to write as if our brains have been replaced by bullshit. Above our necks our heads are like a fresh aspirin bottle. Sealed shut and stuffed with cotton.

We write--and writing and thinking and speech are meant to go together--like a focus group put through a Cuisinart.

Obama may lose the Presidency because last week in the Presidential debate against Romney he played bland, dumb and insipid. He played not to lose. Rather than sticking with the emotional, empathetic, visceral language which had brought him such success as a candidate.

In the words of Bill Clinton, "He didn't put the corn where the pigs could get at it."

Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico
Prepared by Ernest Hemingway

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish.

In the first forty days a boy had been with him.

But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky...

and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.

It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty...

and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast.

The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled;

it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Thank you!!!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


As you may or may not know, last week was something called "Advertising Week" in New York. That means a bunch of swindlers got together and published a thick, glossy program magazine chock-full of terrible ads by advertising agencies.

Such is the state of our business that even the ads we do for ourselves suck. In fact, these particular ones suck even worse (or is it louder) than most of the ads for clients.

In any event, the worst of these ads I pasted above. I'm not protesting against the design or the execution. But I am bellowing about the idea--on at least two levels.

First, does anyone really believe mobile screens are "greater than" TV? Have 70-million people simultaneously watched anything on a phone. Are people tuning in at 8:30 to play with their phone for 22 minutes. If you had a message--if you had to sell a product, would you choose to do it on a phone rather than on TV?

Second, why do we have to take out ads that bombastically assert the supremacy of one media or the obsolescence of another?

Can't we all just agree that they all have a place and leave the mud slinging, name calling and shit shooting to the men who will someday be our president?

Brand stories.

Last night I got a call from an ex-client of mine. He wanted to talk to me about some freelance--freelance that could turn into something big. We decided to meet this morning at a midtown hotel over breakfast.

Once we had ordered our aluminum-cut oats with artisanal hormone-free free-range berries and our cups of hand-picked fair-trade locally-roasted locavore coffee, we got down to business.

"George," he said "I'd like you to tell the story of our brand. We need to tell our brand story."

"You make faucets, yes? What kind of story do you need to tell?"

"Faucets, if you think about it, bring water. And water is the essence of..."

"That's good," I interrupted, "but what makes your faucets special? I need more to go on than just water."

"Well, we're the fourth largest manufacturer of faucets on the eastern seaboard."

"And you bring a century of faucet-making-prowess to every one?"

"No, actually, we import everything from a plant in Ghangzhou."

"I mean stories have plots. Characters. Conflict. Tension. What kind of story are you looking for?"

"Something that will get consumers to interact. Something they'll pass along. The start of a conversation!"

"A conversation about faucets?" I asked with more than a soupcon of incredulity.

"Yes, that's it," my friend was fairly frothing oats by now. "Something that speaks the brand's language and reveals the truth of who we are. Our story!"

"Well, I'll work on it but it won't be cheap."

We dickered for a moment and then arrived at a price.

"One last thing," he said. "I need it by Thursday."

I paid the bill.

Onward and upward.

The other day I visited the website of my first ECD in the business (from when ECD meant you were in charge of the show.) This particular ECD left the ad business 25 years ago to write TV shows in Hollywood and since then, he's had success as an author of potboiler detective novels.

On his site, I stumbled upon a phrase he used in reference to his career as a TV writer. The phrase was "plummeting upwards."

Just now I got off the phone with the client. It appeared that the client had all hung up the phone, though the green light on the speaker phone was still on.

I almost bitched out the client because it was obvious to me that they had done none of the preparation needed for this meeting.

I almost said something nasty.

I came this close.

Then I realized the client was still on and bit my tongue.


I had almost plummeted upwards.


I got home from three weeks of shooting on Saturday afternoon. I'd say I was dog tired, except I have a dog, and she's never tired. Besides, it didn't matter that I was tired. My agency, squeezing me like a loan shark squeezes a debtor, had a lot lined up for me to do. As much as I would have liked to have taken Monday off, and Tuesday too, I was at my desk both days before 8:30.

Work for me is a compulsion. As I said, even when I am pissed (like I am now) and could use a couple days, if for no other reason than to thumb my nose at all the people who are a) getting rich off of my labor or b) taking me for granted or c) both "a" and "b," I have such an o'erweening sense of responsibility that I come in and I work.

Maybe it comes from my Shtetl-upbringing.

I'm sure my grandfather was out in the fields just hours after he and his family were beaten and raped by marauding Cossacks. That's what we do, we work.

So I was in early today and right at it.



One of the damaging and dangerous things that's happened to our business over the last ten years or so is that agency ranks are now filled with legions of people who have nothing to do but manage.

They don't come up with strategies.

They don't art direct.

Or write copy.

They don't handle the client.

They don't produce.

Or proofread.

Or type out the legal copy complete with (R)s and TMs.

They don't do anything that materially advances the ball.

They don't do anything but "manage."

Because they don't do anything, they lack control.

But because they "manage," they are control freaks.

A control freak lacking control equals panic.

So, they panic.

They don't know what you do, so they can't help you.

Or trust you.

Or form a relationship with you.

They have no time for that.

They're too busy managing.

Which is code for panicking.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Advertising advice from Dustin Hoffman and Arthur Miller.

The great magazine, perhaps the greatest, "The New Yorker," concluded its three-day "New Yorker Festival" yesterday and my wife and I were lucky enough (or my wife was plucky enough) to get tickets to two of the events.

The first was a celebration of the work of "The New Yorker's" most-noted writer ever, Joseph Mitchell, a hero of mine since I discovered him for myself in the early 90s. Mitchell's most famous book, "Up in the Old Hotel," is a collection of some of these writings and we got to hear actor Bob Balaban, and writers Ian Frazier and Mark Singer, read and talk about some of Mitchell's work. Additionally, Mitchell's surviving daughter was there and spoke with love about her dad. She toted with her about two dozen file folders filled with type-written sheets of paper. More of Mitchell.

Then we subwayed uptown to the Director's Guild Theatre on West 57th Street to see a yet-to-be-released movie, "Quartet." It was, at 75, the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman and starred Maggie Smith, Billy Connally and Tom Courtenay. Afterwards Susan Morrison, a "New Yorker" editor interviewed Dustin Hoffman.

The movie was wonderful.

The interview was breathtaking.

Hoffman doesn't answer questions in one sentence or even five. He goes on for fifteen minutes, touching everything and running down tangents until he turns to the audience, gives us a look and squinckles his eyebrows as if to say he's sorry.

He has nothing to be sorry for.

He talked what it was like to work with Mike Nichols, Barry Levinson, John Schlesinger. What it was like being a waiter for ten years and rooming with Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall.

For me the highpoint of the afternoon--and into the evening--came when he spoke about doing "Death of a Salesman." He insisted before taking the part that Arthur Miller be on hand during rehearsals and through most performances. Hoffman wanted to make sure he was serving Miller's masterpiece right.

"It's a really funny play," Hoffman said. "Miller jabs, jabs, jabs, jabs, jabs. He gets you laughing. And then comes the roundhouse punch to knock the wind out of you.

"Once after the first act, we really had the audience laughing at Willy Loman's foibles. I went offstage and said to Miller, 'That was a great first act.'

"Miller looked at his watch and tapped it. 'It was three minutes too long,' he said.

"Of course it was long, I said. I didn't want to speak over the laughter.

"You have to, Miller said. That's how you get them like this," Hoffman scootched up in his seat and leaned forward in it. "Not like this," and Hoffman lazed back.

There's a lot of talk in advertising these days about "lean forward marketing." As if that were something new, as if it were the domain of "new media."

No media or generation can stake a claim on leaning forward. Certainly Euripides had Athenians leaning forward during "Medea," almost 3,000 years ago. And people leaned forward in Sumer, to hear "Gilgamesh," sung. And in Israel, almost 6,000 years ago, people leaned forward to hear the Torah.

If you want people to lean forward, give them something interesting to lean into.

There's a lot that's changed in our business over the years and decades.

That truth never will.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Five things I have learned.

About eight hours ago we wrapped up a four day shoot. It was by all accounts a big shoot, featuring celebrity talent, spread over 14 locations, involving more than 75 actors.

It was also the biggest "thing" I do all year for my client and my agency. Virtually everything I do at work somehow leads up to or builds upon our one shoot per year. There are weeks of concepting (not because it takes that long to come up with ideas, rather because it takes millions of rounds to get and keep something bought.) There are even more weeks of nasty agency sniping and back-biting. People second-guessing, playing the role of "summer soldier," and so on. There are also many rounds of "strategic shifts" and client paroxysms of fear and paralysis to go through.

And then there is the long and winding road of production itself. Casting, scouting, shooting. Of course I have now weeks of post-production and the accompanying more of the above that goes along with it.

Here's what I've learned, not just on this shoot, but during the last 28 years in the business.

1. As the pace of our industry accelerates, the need for personal patience is greater than ever. Today we have millions of check ins. Which means millions of moments for people to panic. Let most of that panic wash over you. Don't let it affect you. Be patient.

2. Never underestimate the power of stubbornness. Take a step away from the words and pictures you're creating and derive a single sentence that encapsulates what you are striving to accomplish. A single short sentence. Stick to that sentence as a beacon through everything you do. Make compromises about details if you must. But stick to that sentence. Keep coming back to it, keep it alive. That sentence is your work.

3. Be nice to people. Along the production way there will be hundreds of people involved. Tell them what you are doing and why. Be respectful, considerate and decent. You will eventually need these people's skills and craft to succeed.

4. Ignore 99% of the noise around you. Agencies and clients are fear factories. For everything you want to do there will arise a thousand moments of anxiety from people who have never done it before, from people who are insecure, from people who are afraid of committal or their boss. Those thousands of moments create noise that can ruin you. Ignore it.

5. Work hard. Keep coming up with options. Don't settle. Be thorough. Watch every detail without obsessing over every detail. But keep tabs on all the people you've been nice to, and make sure they are giving you what you want and need.

There might be more, but it's 3:30 in the morning where I am, and I have a plane to catch.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Lessons from Jobs.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Steve Jobs and on there's a tribute video to his life and the world he helped create.

Watch the video. It shows what Jobs knew and what 99% of agencies and technologists don't.

I found the quote below especially astute and relevant to all all all of us.

"It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with Liberal Arts, married with the Humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing."

A bit on my father.

My father, absent and unavailable as he was taught me things.

He taught me that if you want to learn to write you have to read. Accordingly he taught me if you want to read good, insightful writing, read "The New York Times" Book Review.

He taught me the value of hard work, since he seldom came home.

He taught me moderation, since he did not possess any.

Yesterday, I was thinking about a poem he beat into my head. When clients panic and agencies enable, that's when I wish more people knew this poem.

It's short, just four lines. He had it typewritten and pinned to the wall in his house.

I have it typewritten and in my wallet. And etched in my brain.

It's a poem called "On Anxiety" and it's by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Some of your hurts you have cured,
And the sharpest you still have survived,
But what torments of grief you endured,
From the evil that never arrived.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


One of the tragedies of modern life--and it was ever thus--is that no one has any understanding of the past. No one seems to understand the wisdom of William Faulkner who famously said (and spent a career writing about) "the past isn't dead, it isn't even past."

We carom around making the same mistakes, failing to understand what happened before, pointing fingers and jumping to conclusions. We subvert others to make ourselves heroic. We forget the basics and stick, instead, to pomposity, mendacity and self-aggrandizement. We've built an industry on it.

So we chase our tails and create crises, forgetting that a little moderation, a little perspective, a little thoughtful consideration can unravel most problems.

Lower your volume.
Count to ten for crissakes.

Barring that, shut the fuck up.

You'll probably live longer.


I'm out west in Telluride, Colorado right now shooting celebrity talent in the mountains. Of course prior to tomorrow's shoot we've shared location shots and wardrobe with everyone and his cousin. But since the amount of panic rises in proportion to the proximity of shooting, we have taken a boatload of flak from ill-informed second-guessers who are half a continent away.

They also seem to be oblivious to an old maxim I've just thought up, which says:
"An ounce of discussion is worth a pound of email."
In other words if you have an issue, call me.
Don't hide behind binary code.

In any event we went shopping this morning to address the client's perceived wardrobe issues and I found this hat. 

Which I am now wearing proudly.